In his commencement speech, “This is Water,” David Foster Wallace said, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people, and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
Wallace wanted people to think beyond the self-centered “default setting” of our brains. We have a choice of what to think about, he said, by choosing not to get sucked into that spiraling selfish immediacy– how things make me feel, how things effect my life, how things suck for me, how this or that is in my way; I am tired and hungry; I would do things differently, I am in a rush, etc. etc. – by choosing the route of higher perspective, considering what other people might be going through, however similar or different than your own, we learn more from experience. We become better, happier, smarter people. Of course, it’s easier said than done.
Trail work forces me to think beyond my immediate needs for the greater good of the crew. Last hitch, we carried in ten days-worth of food, tools, and gear four miles into the Lillian Brook Trail to build a bridge (the last rustic timber bridge to be built in the Adirondacks. Felled trees don’t last as long as treated wood and old telephone poles.) Each of our packs surpassed 60 pounds, and it took two trips to get everything in.
For the first three days, we took down the old bridge and hauled the fresh felled lumber over to the work site, a rocky creek of snow water clean enough to drink straight.
There are no power tools allowed in a wilderness area, so we worked the old fashioned way. Each notch in the crib had to be measured, sawed with a cross cut, and shaped with a chisel and hammer. One notch could take two hours.
Is it weird to be thankful for adrenaline? Because without it we wouldn’t have finished. The last three days of hitch went through dinner. Our campsite was next to the bridge; someone cooked while the rest of us worked, and after eating, it was back to work until dark or insanity. Whichever came first.
Why do we do it? David Foster Wallace speaks of sacrifice in terms of people, for people, among people, between people. My crew members and I sacrifice for each other every day, however “petty” or “unsexy” – whether that be taking over a task when one of us is tired, even though we are all tired; giving the hungriest person the last serving of dinner, even though we are all hungry; wearing the water boots that have holes in them so someone else doesn’t have to, or, like last hitch, hiking a crew member out when he was sick and throwing up – despite these daily efforts, a less heard of, perhaps less obvious type of sacrifice is what we do for nature. What nature does for us.
A trail is a corridor of sacrifice. In attempts to reduce human impact across the land, we confine it to a single strip through the forest, so people can use and enjoy the outdoors without trampling or polluting nature willy-nilly.
There are people who understand the give and take between humans and nature, which on a grander scale is a losing battle for nature as people function in their default settings – we, us, me, me, me. In trail work, nature is part of the “we” and “us”. I don’t destroy a spider web because it’s in my way. I don’t wash my dishes directly in the river because it’s easier.
Like a relationship with a lover, continuous conservation requires everything Wallace said and more: effort and discipline, respect and promise, honesty and sacrifice, play and curiosity, gentility and love, humor and chemistry. With the give and take of all these things in the forest, it’s no wonder why I feel a rare and raw sense of freedom.